Richard Pryor’s life examined in the stageplay ‘Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia’

Photo source: Twitter – @Unspeakablelive

Richard Pryor is regarded in most comedy circles as the best who ever did it. His honesty and candor are unmatched ten years after his passing. Subject matters and sensibilities that he tapped into throughout his career are just as relevant now as they were almost 40 years ago. There’s talk of a movie in the works and Pryor was recently recognized by the Apollo Theater with an induction ceremony for the Apollo Walk of Fame.

James Murray Jackson Jr. and Rod Gailes OBC have collaborated to tell the story of Richard Pryor from a new perspective in their play Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia. We spoke with them recently about why they decided pursue this project.

Tell us who you are and what you do.
Rod: My name is Rod Gailes OBC. I’m a writer/director/producer for stage and screen. I direct films of various lengths, shorts commercials and features. I direct for stage musicals, traditional format plays including original material. I’m also a director of the concert stage. As a director, I kind of cross media; that’s what I do for a living.

Talk about the project you are working on right now: the name of it and the inspiration for it.
Rod: The project that we are working on right now is called Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia and it’s inspired by the life and spirit of Richard Pryor. In exploring Richard Pryor, we deal with a lot of life issues that people are still dealing with now politically and racially in America. It’s rooted and inspired by the man himself.

When you say, “a dramatic fantasia,” what does that mean?
Rod: I think storytelling begins the moment that the audience hears the title. What I think is lost in today’s entertainment landscape is a sense of imagination or engagement with an audience in a certain kind of way. I remember when Thriller came out and the immediate spark of imagination it gave me. Like what does that mean? What is it about? So to me “dramatic fantasia” is about engaging the audience and the very question that you have asked me right now. It probably means something in your head, just because you are asking the question.

Rod Gailes OBC photo credit Joel Karie
Rod Gailes OBC (Photo credit: Joel Karie)

Interesting: when I think fantasia, I don’t think of the singer initially. I think Mickey Mouse, stars and dancing elephants. So from that perspective, what are you looking to convey with the title?
Rod: Fantasia is really about taking a non-linear associative fantastic approach to dramatic storytelling. It’s not a play that happens in Richard Pryor’s living room, or in his bathroom. It’s not linear. This is really about expressing and moving through the narrative of Richard’s energy and mind.

So would you say it’s more of an expansive conceptualization of Richards’s life?
Rod: Not necessarily a concept. We take you through phases in his life from the day he was born till after death when he talks to God. That doesn’t necessarily happen in the living room.

You kind of touched on this a little bit, but why Richard Pryor?
James: A number of years back, I was in NY. At that time, I grew my hair out. It was the summer of 2000 and people would stop me on the street saying that I look like a young Richard Pryor. Rod and I know each other from a film we worked on called Pharaoh Jones. I collaborated with him. He was working with Spike Lee at the time and suggested I should go work with the famous acting coach Susan Batson. She had a class called developing your own method and in that process you choose a celebrity character to work on as a character during this six month class. When I went to choose the character, Susan mentioned I should choose Richard Pryor. It didn’t start off as a play; it just started off with me as an actor working on Richard as a character. Susan suggested I should write a play while I was in this process. I had never written a play, so I reached out to Rod and asked if he would work with me on writing the play. That was the genesis of the play.

It started off as a three-person play and then quickly evolved into a seven-actor driven ensemble piece with every actor playing multiple characters. We fleshed out the world of Richard and that’s how the play came about.

James Murray Jackson Jr. - Photo courtesy of PR Werks
James Murray Jackson Jr. (Photo courtesy of PR Werks)

Richard Pryor is a complex person what was the most challenging part about embodying who he is. 
James: It’s all challenging. Richard is a complex charismatic person. At the end of the day he had a lot that he was dealing with. It’s my job as an actor to try to connect to his energy and really try to channel who he was from a spiritual place. I really cant imitate Richard Pryor because their was only one. So my goal is to simply try to channel the essence of who he was and connect with that. Connect with his need and find the base of who he was. There is so much to this man I can spend every show trying to find a new facet of this man and it will always will be something fresh and new for me and the audience.

James what kind of actor are you an what kind of legacy would you like to leave?
I’m the kind of actor that looks to tell the truth and I seek to be honest in what I do. At the end of the day I really want what ever I do to have a ring of honesty and truth to it. I look at actors like Denzel and George Clooney and Meryl Streep. I am really connected to actors who are strong, play strong characters and have a strong presence. As far as legacy, no one has ever asked me that question. I want people to connect and feel something when they see the work. I want them to get something out of it and that it takes them to a higher place. To me thats what art does and what performers can help facilitate. –

Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia is currently playing at The Broadway Playhouse At Water Tower Place in Chicago. To learn more about dates and times for showings hit the link.

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